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what is separation anxiety

Mum cuddling her little boy close

One day your little wriggler is happily bashing toys together, none the wiser to your 30-second loo break. The next, you step out to flick the kettle on and they’re not at all happy with you. Welcome to separation anxiety.

What is separation anxiety? This fear of being away from you (yep, even for 10 seconds) usually begins when they’re six months old. It’s a big new stage of baby’s development: just when you thought you’d got the hang of this bedtime routine stuff. I know, I know – it’s frustrating. But look at it this way – it shows just how much baby has come to rely on you. They’re basically telling you what a fantastic job you’ve done so far.

When the tears and tantrums start, just remember that it’s completely normal. You’ll quickly learn those tell-tale separation anxiety symptoms, while your little one will soon understand how leaving and returning works.

what causes separation anxiety


Separation anxiety usually crops up around the landmark age of six months. Right now, your not-so-new arrival has started to recognise you as their *caregiver (*dutiful servant): the one with the milk and the aeroplane spoon! Being apart from you, even for a short time, can put them on edge. It’s a normal stage of development and simply means baby is engaging with the world around them.

As they get older – we’ve all heard of those terrible twos, right? – separation anxiety might visit briefly once again. Being a toddler is all about independence… and the word ‘no’. You might not enjoy the onslaught of tantrums, but try to relax. It’s just a way for them to tell you (loudly) that they’re not getting their own way.

You might notice signs of separation anxiety if something changes in your child’s world – if they’re starting school or getting a new little sibling – but these blips shouldn’t last long. It’s just while you all settle into a new situation or routine.

Siblings cuddling together

separation anxiety symptoms


Separation anxiety can seem to come right out of the blue (handy, I know). There are a few things you can look out for if you think baby might be arriving at this important stage of their development.

Your little one might cry when you leave the room. They might become clingier or demand to be held more (it’s time to build up your arm strength!). At this stage, baby might seem unhappy even in the company of people they’re used to. They also might decide that playing with their favourite toy isn’t enough anymore: they now don’t want to play without you.

You may also notice that your little one starts to wake up during the night or early in the morning. This is just another sign that they’re aware of your presence and are wondering where you’ve gone.

how to help separation anxiety


Remember, separation anxiety is a completely natural stage in your little one’s early years. While you both go through the motions, there are a few things you can do to make being apart that little bit easier.

When you're dealing with separation anxiety, start small. Have a well-known family member nip in at lunchtime while you pop to the shop. Playing games of peekaboo is another way to get them used to not seeing you – it’s sure to make them giggle, too.

Equally, communication is key! Even if the only language they know right now is babble. Tell them where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

Mum talking to her new baby

As they get older, they’ll come to understand the routine and they’ll know when you’ll be back again. If they’re a little older, tell them something you’ll do together when you get home.

saying bye, bye


When you do have to leave – whether to go to the shops, have some ‘me-time’ (we all need it) or get back to work – make sure baby is in a familiar environment. Try to have the same person look after them each time you’re away, to give them a bit of normality.

Say ‘bye-bye’ with confidence. Wave goodbye quickly and commit straight away so as to not confuse baby. Sure, they might grizzle for ten minutes but they’ll soon be settled and distracted. Let that thought reassure you!

The same applies when your little one is starting nursery. They’ll need to settle into their new routine and get comfortable with all those new faces. Work with your child’s carer to say a quick goodbye before they’re whisked off for playtime with other toddlers.

when to seek help


As I’ve said, separation anxiety is completely natural. It’s a rather tricky sign that your little one is moving into the next stage of development – and it shows their love for you, of course.

If you do find separation anxiety affecting your day-to-day life – if it stops you from going to work or prevents baby from experiencing new things – speak to your GP. They’ll be able to help make the entire process run a little smoother.

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